The Planet as Self-Regulating System: Configuring the Biosphere as an Object of Knowledge, 1940–1990
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Aronowsky, Leah Vaughan
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CitationAronowsky, Leah Vaughan. 2018. The Planet as Self-Regulating System: Configuring the Biosphere as an Object of Knowledge, 1940–1990. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation investigates the history of the concept of the biosphere in the United States between 1940 and 1990. It analyzes how the concept historically figured as a device for theorizing "the planetary environment" as an integrated, self-regulating system, and how this idea of the planet as a self-regulating system in turn made possible new ways of knowing the natural world. It does so by tracing the emergence and evolution of what I describe as structuring logics of the biosphere: the distinct constellations of scientific practices and cultural concerns that gave structure to new epistemologies of the biosphere. The first section examines the immediate postwar-era emergence of an epistemology of the biosphere inflected by the logic of the circular causal system, tracing how the notion developed in relation to neo-Malthusian anxieties about natural resource scarcity and the broader scientific turn to cybernetics. The second section details the 1960s emergence of an epistemology of the biosphere anchored in the logic of the life-support system. Here, I trace the origins of the idea of the biosphere as a life-support system to the Cold War geopolitics of the Space Race, and follow how the trope went on to become an influential conceptual device in the 1970s among countercultural architects and designers eager to confront the problem of natural resource finitude through design research. Finally, the third section maps the history of an epistemology of the biosphere structured by the logic of Gaia, the notion of the planet as a biological, cybernetic system that emerged over the course of the 1970s amid an institutional shift within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to pursue research on the nature of Earthly––rather than extraterrestrial––life. These structuring logics give purchase to the contention of the dissertation that the concept of the biosphere and the scientific meanings it assumed were neither inevitable nor univocal, but rather reflected the historical concerns of a heterogeneous array of fields of knowledge and politics, including the political economy of natural resource extraction, the rise of cybernetics, the geopolitics of the Cold War, and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41129195
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